Dancer, singer and actress Chita Rivera has performed in front of millions on Broadway, London’s West End, around the world, on national television and on the silver screen. She’s a two-time Tony Award winner, with eight additional Tony nominations to her credit (Rivera and Julie Harris are the most nominated performers in the history of the Tony Awards). During the golden age of television variety programs, Rivera was a guest on virtually every must-see show, including those hosted by Maurice Chevalier, Judy Garland and Carol Burnett. Here are a few highlights of her life, legendary career and electrifying performances.
What are your favorite roles and performances? Share in the comments, below.
Chita’s Early Years through 20s
1933: Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero on January 23 in Washington, DC. Her father hailed from Puerto Rico and her mother was American and Scottish.
1944: Begins ballet training in Washington, DC.
1949: At age 16 she auditions for choreographer George Balanchine and wins scholarship to American School of Ballet in New York City.
1952: At age 19 she is cast in chorus of her first national tour — Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stritch.
1953: Replacing Onna White, Rivera is cast as principal dancer in her first Broadway show, Guys and Dolls.
1954: After its opening on Broadway, Rivera is cast in the Abe Burrows Broadway musical Can-Can, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and choreography by Michael Kidd. Rivera meets Gwen Verdon for the first time, who stars as Claudine. The two become close friends.
1955: Rivera is a member of the Off-Broadway Shoestring Revue, which included Bea Arthur.
1957: West Side Story opens September 26 at Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, with Rivera giving her star-making performance as Anita. She treasures working with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim on this musical. Marries dancer and West Side Story cast member Tony Mordente (marriage ends 1966). See a West Side Story excerpt from Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do.
1958: Rivera gives birth to daughter Lisa Mordente on July 30. Opens West Side Story in London’s West End, reprising her role of Anita. The production was delayed to accommodate her schedule after the birth of her daughter.
1960: Plays Rose Grant in Bye-Bye Birdie on Broadway, co-stars with Dick Van Dyke (who is interviewed in Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do). Gower Champion is choreographer. Reprises role in London’s West End production in 1961.
Chita in her 30s
1964: Stars as Anyanka in Bajour, which opened November 23 and ran through June 12, 1965. Peter Gennaro, the co-choreographer of West Side Story, did the musical staging.
1966: Rivera plays Jenny, the Lotte Lenya role in a touring production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht musical Threepenny Opera.
1967: Rivera replaces Gwen Verdon as Charity in first national tour of Sweet Charity with the original company.
1969: Chita plays dancer Nickie in the film Sweet Charity, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starring Shirley MacLlaine.
1970: National tour in musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. (Rivera performs “Carousel” from the revue in this web-exclusive footage from Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do.)
Chita in her 40s
1975: Plays Velma Kelly in the original Broadway cast of Chicago. She and friend Gwen Verdon (playing Roxie Hart) are both nominated for Tony Awards. The show is directed by Bob Fosse with music by Kander and Ebb. It runs June 3, 1975 through August 27, 1977. Rivera also stars in the subsequent national tour.
Chita in her 50s
1983: Nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Queen in Merlin on Broadway. Co-stars include magician Doug Henning and Nathan Lane. Rivera co-stars with Ben Vereen in televised version of Pippin (broadcast in Canada in 1981).
1984: Wins her first Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical as Anna in The Rink, co-starring with Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb’s 10th production.
April 1986: Rivera suffers a severe injury in a car accident, breaking the tibula and fibula of her left leg. She had been co-starring with Dorothy Loudon and Leslie Uggams in Jerry’s Girls, which opened December 18, 1985.
Chita in her 60s
1993: Rivera’s Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical is her second Tony and one of seven wins out of 11 nominations for Kiss of the Spider Woman, by Kander and Ebb, with book by playwright Terrence McNally. Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello co-starred. The Broadway production ran May 3, 1993 to July 1, 1995.
1999: Rivera plays Roxie Hart and Ben Vereen plays Billy Flynn in Chicago The Musical in Las Vegas and London. The musical opened the Mandalay Bay Hotel and was the first full-length, two-act show in Las Vegas.
See Rivera perform “Nowadays” in Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do.
2002: Receives Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime of contributions to American culture. Fellow honorees that year were James Levine, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Simon, and James Earl Jones. Chita Rivera was the first Hispanic woman to receive the honor. The first Hispanic man honored was Spanish tenor Placido Domingo in 2000.
Chita in her 70s
2003: Nominated for Tony for her performance in Broadway revival of Nine, which also stars Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson among others.
2005: Stars in the autobiographical show she conceived, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life on Broadway. Rivera receives Tony Award nomination. Creative team includes playwright Terrence McNally and director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, both of whom are interviewed in Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do.
2009: Chita Rivera is among 16 recipients of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Among the honorees, Rivera and actor Sidney Poitier are the only artists. President Obama quipped that Rivera, born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, “knows the adversity that comes with a difficult name.” She releases solo studio album, And Now I Swing.
2012: Rivera is nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Princess Puffer in the Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Chita in her 80s
2015: Tony Nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for role of Claire Zachanassian in The Visit, by Kander and Ebb, with book by Terrence McNally and directed by John Doyle. Her co-star was the late, great actor Roger Rees, who played the role of Anton Schell.
What are your favorite roles and performances? Share in the comments, below. For more of Chita Rivera’s performance history
in plays, films, concerts and television specials,
see the official Chita Rivera website.
Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ to Do airs on Great Performances:
Fri., Nov. 6 at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings).